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SPECIAL SECTION / BASEBALL 2001 | ESSAY

Loves Me, Loves Me Not....

Dodgers Have Struck Out as Champions of Tradition

April 01, 2001|MIKE PENNER

The pitcher who signed the contract that kick-started baseball's death-spiral to Work Stoppage 2002 stares in at the catcher who led last season's charge of the blight brigade into the Wrigley Field stands.

The journeyman infielder, former property of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave, guards the line at third because the regular third baseman, the one who was illegally signed to a contract before his 16th birthday, is still recovering from a botched appendectomy performed during the off-season.

The second baseman who couldn't cut it at shortstop plays back a step or two, positioned there because the man they acquired in exchange for the best pitcher in baseball couldn't cut it at second base.

The star left fielder who threatened to reveal dirty secrets about the team if he wasn't traded, who called his bosses clueless and his teammates undeserving of "dumb" contracts that have affected his ability to earn more than $9.5 million this season, smooths out the uniform of the team for which he swore he'd never play again.

The manager, the team's fourth in four seasons, studies a lineup card featuring a leadoff batter who struck out nearly 120 times last season because the front office, which has already spent more money on this team than any in baseball history, didn't want to shell out for a pricier model, while the general manager, who refused to trade a pitching prospect for Johnny Damon, sits upstairs, thinking up new nicknames for himself in eager anticipation of his next radio talk-show interview.

Ladies and gentlemen . . . your 2001 Los Angeles Dodgers!

Assuming, of course, you have successfully deluded, or medicated, yourself into thinking these are still your Dodgers, the Dodgers you were weaned on, back when the name still meant something more than Fox programming filler between "Cops" and "When Animals Attack."

Half a century ago, a good half-dozen years before Kevin Malone was born, Dodger foot-in-mouth disease was restricted to a midsummer utterance by Brooklyn Manager Charlie Dressen that "The Giants is dead." He was talking about the 1951 National League pennant race, at a time when the Dodgers looked unstoppable. (Again, this was 50 years ago.) Dressen's attention to detail was as bad as his grammar, as the Giants rallied to tie the Dodgers in the standings, then won the pennant, won the pennant, won the pennant on Bobby Thomson's playoff-deciding home run.

Fifty years on, a safer bet can be made from the evidence at hand.

The Dodgers is dead.

Oh, there's still a team using the name, though it might as well be the Devil Rays or the 3rd Rocks From the Sun or, if Fox truly wanted to trade on a brand that represents tradition, quality and continuity to an entire generation of fans, the Simpsons.

But the Dodgers Los Angeles once knew, the summer perennial that sent millions of kids to bed with their transistor radios, dreaming of Danny Goodman souvenir specials and fairy tales spun by Uncle Vinny, are no more. Everything those Dodgers stood for, everything Dodger blue once symbolized, has been buried behind home plate at Chavez Ravine, where Mike Piazza once squatted, where Dusty Baker once trotted.

Dodger stability? The franchise that employed two managers, Walt Alston and Tom Lasorda, from 1954 to 1996 has gone through four since 1998. Since Piazza made his last start for the Dodgers, in May '98, the team has brought in Charles Johnson and let him go, brought in Todd Hundley and let him go, brought in Chad Kreuter, kept him and will now platoon him with Paul LoDuca. Shortstop? Greg Gagne in '97, Jose Vizcaino in '98, Mark Grudzielanek in '99, Alex Cora in 2000. Second base? Delino DeShields in '96, Wilton Guerrero in '97, Eric Young in '98-99, Grudzielanek in 2000.

The fabled Dodger farm system? Only two position players in Monday's opening-day lineup, Cora and first baseman Eric Karros, have spent their entire careers with the Dodgers. To assemble the starting outfield of Gary Sheffield, Tom Goodwin and Shawn Green, the club said goodbye to three former rookies of the year--Piazza, Todd Hollandsworth and Raul Mondesi. Baseball Weekly recently ranked the Dodger farm system 28th of 30 clubs.

"The Dodger Way To Play Baseball," which once upon a time meant pitching, speed and defense? The pitching is still there, with General Manager Malone kicking and dealing $105 million to lure Kevin Brown from San Diego and $55 million more to keep Darren Dreifort in the rotation. But the Dodgers have become station-to-station plodders on the base paths--no player stole more than 24 bases last season--and an amusement park in the field. The team that long preached strength up the middle has had no infielder win a Gold Glove since Davey Lopes in '78, no center fielder since Willie Davis in '73 and only one catcher since John Roseboro in '66.

(For trivia enthusiasts, Johnson was the NL Gold Glove catcher in '98. The Dodgers celebrated this momentous achievement by trading Johnson a month later to the New York Mets.)

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